Proposal seeks to reschedule Baltimore elections

Dixon opposes lawmakers' quest to align them with the state gubernatorial race

March 09, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

Local and state politicians have so toyed with Baltimore's election schedule that in 2003 and 2004, there was a 14-month gap between the city's primary and general elections. As a result, the mayor and City Council members were elected to five-year terms - and then three-year terms.

The city's elections would be rescheduled again under a proposal before the General Assembly. The Baltimore Senate delegation and Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller want to align the city's elections with state gubernatorial elections, over the opposition of Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon.

"As we progress, elections are becoming increasingly more expensive," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat and the chief sponsor of the legislation, which would go into effect in 2010 or 2014. "This is a way for the city to save money."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the March 9 Maryland section incorrectly characterized the membership of the Board of Public Works. Comptroller Peter Franchot and State Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, both of Montgomery County, occupy two of the board's three seats.
The Sun regrets the errors.

McFadden said holding state and city elections in the same year would save Baltimore more than $3 million at a time when state funding for local governments is expected to drop because the state faces a $1.3 billion budget shortfall starting next year.

Demaune Millard, director of government relations for Dixon, told members of a Senate committee yesterday that linking state and Baltimore elections would result in high-profile statewide campaigns drowning out debates over local issues.

"Atlanta, Buffalo, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York City and San Francisco all have elections that don't coincide with state elections," Millard said. "Big cities need to be able to focus on local elections."

Other cities in the state, such as Annapolis, also hold municipal contests on off-years, and Millard questioned why legislators aren't seeking to reschedule those elections.

The timing of Baltimore elections has been a running power struggle between Miller and city officials. Baltimore City voters changed the date of their municipal general election in 1999 to presidential election years, but Miller blocked an effort in the General Assembly to change the city's primary to coincide with the general election.

That created a 14-month gap between the city's primary election in 2003 and the general election in 2004. Baltimore voters either had to accept the 14-month lag or revert to the old way, which they subsequently approved in 2004.

A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said yesterday that the former mayor prefers the current schedule, which would allow the city to start a normal four-year election cycle this fall for the first time since 1999.

The status quo, however, gives candidates for city offices an edge in fundraising, which also is on the minds of McFadden and other Baltimore legislators.

As of this past Jan. 1, the start of Maryland's four-year election cycle, maxed-out contributors start at zero and have four years to reach campaign-finance limits - $4,000 per candidate and $10,000 overall. Given that city elections come first, contributors may hit their individual limits before state-office seekers come knocking for 2010.

The current arrangement also means Baltimore City officials don't have to give up their seats to run for the legislature or statewide office.

The practice is called a "free shot." McFadden did it in 1986 when, as a Baltimore city councilman, he challenged an incumbent state senator and lost. Now an incumbent senator, McFadden said he thinks Baltimore officials need to be willing to give up their posts to run for state office.

"Politicians need to decide, `Do I want to be a council member? Do I want to be a senator? Do I want to be governor?' McFadden said. "Don't use the taxpayer's nickel to play a little game."

McFadden, however, said that his motivation in pushing for the change was secondary to his desire to save taxpayer dollars and increase the city's political clout in Annapolis.

A city-state election would bring more Baltimoreans to the polls for Democratic primaries for governor, attorney general and comptroller, backers say. McFadden said the additional voters from the city, where the number of residents has declined every decade since 1950, would counter the growing power of the state's populous Washington suburbs.

With the ascension of Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Comptroller Peter Franchot to the state's three-member Board of Public Works, which approves state contracts, Montgomery County now controls a majority of the board.

Both Gansler and Franchot replaced longtime Baltimore political fixtures J. Joseph Curran Jr., who retired after rising out of the city's Irish-Catholic machine, and William Donald Schaefer, the city's former mayor and a former governor.

melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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